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Cullen Papers

A small exhibition displayed in the Chemistry Department in November 1997 as part of the 250th anniversary of the foundation of the Department by William Cullen. Exhibition conceived and organised by Dr Alan Cooper, Department of Chemistry; papers selected and described by Julie Gardham, Department of Special Collections.


image here shows a detail from MS Cullen 27

Letter (late 1740s) from Cullen to the University: MS Cullen 12

Cullen persuaded the University in 1747 to institute an independent lectureship in Chemistry; by 1749, the teaching of the subject was seen to be a success. Cullen was paid a salary of 20 per annum, and although some money was found to set up a laboratory, he purchased much of the necessary equipment at his own expense. In this letter he argues for the continuance of his payment before investing in apparatus: I have been at a considerable expence in teaching Chemistry while I have drawn but a very small sum from students .. I hope for more success in the teaching of Chemistry than I have hitherto had & to render that more certain I am resolved to be at some expence in putting my apparatus on the best footing ... nor can I yet venture upon it unless the University’s meeting will be pleased to continue the twenty pounds a year for some years longer.


Letter (London, 8 December 1747) from Walter Johnson to Cullen: MS Cullen 27

Cullen commissioned his brother-in-law, Walter Johnston, to obtain for him certain articles of chemical apparatus along with the chemical writings of Beccher, Stahl, Bohn and Pott. Johnston, however, experienced considerable problems in procuring the required items even in London. He writes that I have found great Difficulty to get any Body to undertake blowing Glasses as They are seldom or never us’d here by any of the Chymists. Having been let down by one firm, Johnston consults with Cullen before going ahead with the order since he asks what I think a great Price ... The great difficulty they say consists in fitting the Openings, & the Stopper to the Tubulated Retort which must be fitted by being grind’d down... The sketches of the apparatus are marked with the price being charged for each item.

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Drafts of 4 letters from Cullen to the Duke of Argyll, 1751: MS Cullen 60

In the eighteenth century appointments to university chairs were strongly influenced by the political patronage system. Cullen gained the patronage of the Duke of Argyll through common interests in chemistry, agriculture and industrial improvement: the Duke of Argyll’s support was instrumental to Cullen’s success in gaining appointments at Glasgow and, later, Edinburgh. These drafts reflect Cullen’s interest on the subjects of fossil alkali and salt production. Cullen proposed a new method for the manufacture and purification of common salt, but the quantity of potash required made the process prohibitively expensive. In one extract, Cullen remarks that he values Chemistry only as it is capable of improving the arts of Life and says that he seeks the Duke’s approbation as my highest ambition. In another, having described his proposed new method of salt production, he begs your Grace not to communicate the contents of this letter to any body. You will not be surprised to find a Chemist become a projector. I have hitherto kept pretty clear of this character but like many other Chemical Enthusiasts having spent more time & money than I could well afford I begin now to wish that any Chemical labours would afford me some returns. If your Grace shall find that my proposed improvement is likely to be of any use I shall consider it as a mark of the greatest goodness to have your opinions in what manner I may best avail myself...


Notes of lectures in Chemistry (undated) MS Cullen 127


Cullen was an inspiring teacher with the ability to enthuse and interest students. His lectures were well constructed, vivid and delivered in a familiar style, usually from notes. He was probably the first teacher to deliver medical lectures in English - an innovation for which he was criticised by colleagues who erroneously rumoured that this was on accountof his poor knowledge of Latin. His method of showing the relationship of substances in chemical reactions by the use of arrows in diagrams, as demonstrated here, was an important step in the teaching of chemistry. As he notes, the Chemists have given long lists without pointing out connexion or dependence so that the student has only very confused notions. I hope the view we have given will be of use tho perhaps not absolutely perfect.

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Fragment of a lecture (undated): MS Cullen 1053

Cullen’s lectures provide an insight into his academic research. It can be said that it was in the course of his chemical lecturing that he was able to develop his approach to agricultural science, to applied chemistry in general, and to highly generalised theories of the states of matter and chemical reactivity. Cullen’s contribution to research has probably been under-rated: certainly, his studies of heat gain/loss and the change in the physical state of substances made a significant contribution to knowledge and were a prelude to Black’s later work on latent heat. In the fragment of lecture on display, Cullen boldly rejects the Newtonian interpretation of attraction and density arguing that we know nothing about the figure of the small parts of Bodies. This supposition can’t be shewn to be true in fact & mere Suppositions we receive not now in Philosophy.


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Fragment of lecture (undated): MS Cullen 255

Some of Cullen’s success and popularity as a lecturer must be attributed to his constant revision of the material which he taught. While the general arrangement of subjects followed did not differ greatly over the years, he always seemed to have some amendations or fresh ideas to add and therefore revitalise his teaching. The fact that his course material was rewritten and not repeated is supported by this introductory lecture to chemical students which, although undated, must have been delivered several years after Cullen’s removal to Edinburgh. Here, the study of Chemistry is described as a troublesome task...After teaching indeed for so many years it might be supposed that my plan was exactly fixed & sufficiently known but truly I am yet far from being satisfied with the perfection of my plan & very certain that it is neither so complete nor so exactly suited to your purpose as I could wish. At the end of his outline of the course, Cullen makes it clear that he expects, in return for his diligence, good behaviour from his students; he asks for the attention that is to be expected from Gentlemen intent on acquiring knowledge & in every part of their conduct the decent behaviour that is to be expected from Men of good breeding.


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Fragment of the printed syllabus to a course of Chemical lectures, 1748: MS Cullen 1069

This document provides invaluable evidence of the Chemistry curriculum at Glasgow from its very beginning. It was only in the previous year to this that Cullen had persuaded the University to support an independent lectureship in Chemistry. Prior to this, only the pharmaceutical aspects of the subject had been dealt with, but Cullen pioneered the transition of chemistry from its subservience to medicine to the status of an independent scientific discipline. Cullen had the vision to see that science was important to society and a broadly based syllabus was produced; chemistry’s value to medicine, agriculture and industry was stressed, and the importance of practical work in the laboratory emphasised.


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Private lecture notes (undated): MS Cullen 268

These notes are probably those which Cullen referred to when actually delivering his lectures. Their subject matter - including descriptions and explanations of various acids, alkalis and salts - corresponds to the second part of the printed syllabus displayed. It is interesting to note that several of the notes are stained with acid which suggests that these could have been the notes which Cullen used when teaching in the laboratory.

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